By Dan Vergano
National Institutes of Health chief Francis Collins Wednesday announced the first 13 human embryonic stem cell "lines" approved for federal research funding, under new rules put forward by the Obama Administration this year.
"What we are announcing today is just the beginning," Collins said at a Wednesday briefing. Approval of the lines was "open and shut" he said, because they met the exact paperwork requirements of June guidelines for proper informed consent of embryo donors. About 20 more cell lines will be considered Friday under a separate review process for cell lines that meet the "spirit" of the consent guidelines.
"It's very exciting," said George Daley of Children's Hospital Boston, whose lab submitted 11 of the 13 approved lines. The other two lines belong to the lab of Ali Brivanlou at Rockefeller University in New York. NIH will allow researchers whose 31 grants for using human embryonic stem cells had awaited the announcement, to now proceed with the approved lines, affecting $21 million in research funding. "We have been passionately pursuing stem cell research for more than a decade, and it has been a long fight," Daley says.
"We are just seeing today the beginning of potential flood of stem cell lines," says Dartmouth bioethicist Ronald Green.
Human embryonic stem cells are grown from a few hundred inner cells of a five-to-six-day old embryo. They are unspecialized cells that can grow into every type of body tissue. Researchers such as Daley have proposed using the cells to study embryonic development, screen drugs to treat chronic ailments and perhaps someday grow immune-rejection free replacement organs for patients suffering diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes.
In 2001, the Bush administration limited federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research to already existing cell lines, citing ethical concerns over the destruction of embryos. Actual destruction of embryos to collect the cells is still barred from federal funding by a separate law, but if that takes place using private money, the new guidelines allow federally-backed research on stem cells grown from those embryos. Eventually fewer than two dozen lines were approved for research funding under the Bush rules. NIH spent $88 million last year on the research.
In March, President Obama asked NIH to produce new guidelines for stem cell research, opening funding to more recently-grown cells, if they met ethical standards for informed consent by embryo donors. The approved lines derive from embryos freely donated by fertility patients for research. Daley says his 11 were "low-grade" embryos rejected for fertility treatments, and then donated by couples for research. His team published a Nature Biotechnology study last year describing the collection and growth of the cells.
Richard Doerflinger of the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops, which opposes research on human embryonic stem cells, called the announcement, "a political event, but the science is all moving in the other direction." He suggests recent progress in so-called "induced" stem cells, grown from skin cells but with many of the tissue-growing potential of embryonic cells, has removed the need for the new cell lines. However, Collins and other scientists suggest that the embryonic stem cells are needed for their own potential and to illuminate advances in induced cell line research.
Collins also says NIH hopes to "review, if not necessarily approve" another 96 cell lines, including those up for review Friday, before NIH grant applications come due in March. Daley estimates that 700 to 800 cell lines have been described in the scientific literature since 2001.